INDIANAPOLIS -- The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was a golden opportunity for the Verizon IndyCar Series to showcase road racing for the sport's hometown fans.
Unfortunately, Sunday's inaugural 82-lap event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course wasn't road racing at its best. Far from it in fact, with the race marred by a scary startline accident and several other silly incidents. There wasn't a ton of passing on the track, and fuel saving ended up being the strategy that won the race.
That's not to take away from Simon Pagenaud's well-earned victory for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsport -- nor from the event itself, which upon first reflection looked like a winner for IMS, with the available grandstand seats mostly filled and crowds 10-15 deep on the infield spectating mounds.
Hulman Motorsports CEO Mark Miles said attendance of 40,000 for the inaugural event would make him happy, and he declared himself "very happy" after the race.
But not as happy as Pagenaud, the 30-year-old Frenchman who has emerged as a true star in his fourth full season of Indy car racing. Pagenaud was the fastest man in practice and qualifying, but he lined up fourth after the wet session that set the grid.
He managed to avoid the startline carnage caused when pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra stalled when the lights changed, then put himself in position to take the win by stretching his final tank of fuel over the last 28 laps. He won by 0.8906 second over Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Helio Castroneves third.
"It feels really good," Pagenaud said after his third career IndyCar Series race win. "I want to say 'thank you' to my team. I think alone I wouldn't have done this today. They were able to give me a really, really good package this weekend. As you could see, we were fast in every session. I knew going into the race that we really had a shot starting fourth.
"Obviously there were a lot of things going on during the race, and it was important to save a lot of fuel," he continued. "I've got to say a big 'thank you' and hats off to Honda for an engine that can be that fast and save that much fuel. I didn't think I could hold on the last 15 laps. But I'm really proud tonight. It's incredible to be near the pagoda and I can't even think what it could be with [winning] the Indy 500."
The race got off to a shaky start when Saavedra, the 23-year-old Colombian in his third season of Indy car racing, stalled after claiming his first career pole.
Most of the field squeaked past, but the cars of Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin cannoned into the back of Saavadera's KVSH Racing Dallara-Chevrolet. Thankfully, none of the drivers were injured, though Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, who watched the start from the pits after participating in prerace ceremonies, suffered a soft tissue injury when he was hit by debris.
One lap after the restart for the early wreck, front-row starter Jack Hawksworth passed Hunter-Reay for the lead in Turn 1. Pagenaud took advantage, and forced his way to the inside line of Turn 2, banging wheels with Hunter-Reay as he took the position.
The pass proved crucial later in the race, because once the fuel strategies worked out, Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay found themselves fighting for the win. They, along with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's Oriol Servia, pitted with 28 laps to go. But whereas Servia had to pit for a splash of fuel with four laps to go, Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay conserved to the finish.
Meanwhile, Castroneves, who made an extra pit stop and therefore had fuel to burn, rapidly reeled them in as the laps wound down and was on Hunter-Reay's rear wing at the checkered flag.
"I just ran out of laps," Castroneves said. "I guess we just didn't want to take a chance with the fuel. But at the end of the day, I'm happy with the result."
Hunter-Reay was also happy to take second after what he called a "strange" race.
"The rhythm was off at times," he said. "Guys were on three-stoppers, two-stoppers, different tire strategies. You didn't always know who you were racing and it was a busy day, that's for sure. But great job by Simon."
Pagenaud has raced in America since 2006, but he didn't land a fulltime IndyCar Series ride until 2011, when he hooked up with dominant Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt. Pagenaud finished fifth in the 2012 IndyCar standings, then scored two wins and finished third in the points a year ago.
The win at Indianapolis moved him within 6 points of championship leader Will Power, who finished eighth on Saturday.
"I think we are a championship contender," Pagenaud said. "We were third last year and in the championship hunt until the last race. It's fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. The people working in the team are very dedicated and very smart. I think the group on the 77 car is very strong. We're extracting 100 percent of what we have. We obviously don't have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we're a very good group of people that have really open communication.
"We're just doing everything we can to check off the bad stuff every weekend," he concluded. "This weekend was pretty much a flawless weekend, a perfect weekend for us."
It was a tremendous day for Schmidt, whose team won Saturday's Indy Lights support race with driver Luis Razia.
"Two wins in one day is pretty damn good," Schmidt told ESPN.com. "If I was smart, I'd retire!
"Simon is going to be strong in the '500' too," Schmidt added. "He's really firing on all cylinders."
When Schmidt stepped up to Indy cars fulltime three years ago after dominating Indy Lights for several years, Pagenaud's role as Honda's lead engine development driver was a key attraction. The Frenchman is known as a very serious, technical-minded race car driver, but he says that taking a more relaxed approach this year is working to his benefit.
"I used to stress a lot about my racing career," Pagenaud admitted. "It's difficult to make it as a race driver. I've been stressing up until last year about my job security. I'm turning 30, so I've got another 10 or 12 years hopefully in IndyCar. I think I've shown speed; I've shown consistency. Now I have decided this year to relax and just let my driving do the rest. So I enjoy it."
Pagenaud's next challenge is to break through for his first race win on an oval. And since he and the SPM team are already at Indianapolis, there's no better place to start.
"It gives me a lot of confidence, obviously," Pagenaud said. "But it's also a great championship run for me today. We've placed really well in the first three races, and then we won the fourth one. It's a good dynamic for the team, for myself, for my confidence level. God knows how confident you have to be around here on an oval."
"Obviously I need time to understand what just happened and realize that I'm the man of the hour and thank my team by buying them a drink," he added. "But then tomorrow, we get back to work. It's a whole different day and that's racing. Even though I won today, tomorrow I could be at the back of the field. That's my motto. That's what gets me to work every day. I don't want to be at the back of the field.
"We're going to work and try to do the same at the Indy 500."
Driver James Hinchcliffe sustained a concussion when he was hit by debris from an accident on Lap 57. Andretti Autosport said that Hinchcliffe will be evaluated by IndyCar medical staff later in the week and he will hopefully be cleared to drive prior to next weekend's Indianapolis 500 qualifications.